York County leaders supported a shake-up of the county-run museum organization Monday night in a meeting marked by emotional, at times tense exchanges over the museum's leadership and direction.
Too many people perceive the county has lost control of the museum and can no longer explain how taxpayer money is being spent, some speakers said during a three-hour public meeting.
"I don't want this to become the big, black elephant of this county," said Councilman Paul Lindemann. "What we could do is change this now and make it something we're proud of."
County Manager Jim Baker got approval to move ahead with a concept that could dissolve the museum's 21-member volunteer governing board and bring museum employees under the supervision of county officials. No specific course of action was decided.
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Debate over new museum
A top focus was the unfulfilled vision for a museum of life and environment overlooking the Catawba River, near the intersection of Interstate 77 and Sutton Road in Fort Mill.
Fundraising efforts have lagged and plans for a sustainable housing community at the site were scrapped. Meanwhile, members of the Catawba Indian tribe have expressed concern for a Native American burial ground known to be at the 400-acre property.
"That's sacred land, that's a graveyard. Our people traditionally buried their dead in the corner of their homes," Catawba Indian Chief Donald Rogers said Monday night. "It would be unfair even for development purposes to pick them up."
It's time to rein in museum directors and re-evaluate plans for the new facility, said board members Bobby Walker and Nancy Cornwell-Daves.
Walker suggested shelving plans for the new museum and instead focus on improving venues such as Historic Brattonsville and the McCelvey Center. A thorough archaeological survey is needed to identify burial grounds, Cornwell-Daves said.
After the meeting, museum director Van Shields defended his staff and took issue with allegations of mismanagement.
"We're not perfect," he said, "but this idea that there's been some nefarious wrongdoing is definitely not true."
A problem with the new museum plan has been the intermingling of private foundations with the public sector, said Councilman Curwood Chappell. The museum foundation set up a special for-profit corporation to hold the land, which is owned by the foundation and not the county.
Volunteer leaders stress taxpayer money is not involved - it's all private dollars. The corporation, Sustainable Development Group, owes $3.78 million to a development partner, Cherokee Investment Partners, that left the deal after investing more than $4.5 million in the project.
Chappell said there are too many complications.
"I don't like this partnership with private stuff messing around with the public," Chappell said. "That's my beef. Leave my taxpayers in (York County's) District 5 out of this mess."
Leadership changes in store
The county needs to step up oversight, said Councilman Tom Smith, comparing the situation to the "Pennies for Progress" road-building program and the "York County Forever" land conservation effort, two areas in which county officials assumed greater supervision.
"We're making a step in the right direction, just like we have with the other ones," Smith said.
Political alliances surrounding the museum could shift in January with the arrival of five new County Council members. Chairman Buddy Motz, a leading supporter of museum leadership, will leave office along with Joe Cox, the museum's most outspoken critic.
The council's incoming Republicans told voters they would focus on essential government functions. Seated on the front row at Monday's meeting were incoming representatives Britt Blackwell, David Bowman and candidate Eric Winstead, while candidate Tom Hardin sat a few rows away.